It’s about time we officially awarded Cate Blanchett the title of Reigning Queen of Character Actors, Female Division, effective immediately. The recognition is long overdue. Flipping though the Australian international player’s screen credits — The Talented Mr. Ripley, Coffee and Cigarettes, Notes on a Scandal, I’m Not There, Hanna, Blue Jasmine, Carol, Truth, all those Tolkien roles, and even the far-fetched showcase Manifesto — it’s clear that there is virtually no movie that could not be improved with the addition of Blanchett in the cast.
Her latest, Where’d You Go Bernadette, teams Blanchett with writer-director Richard Linklater for what in ordinary hands might have been just another maudlin family-style character study. How many stories have we seen about unhappy families laboring under the burden of an unreliable parent? Blanchett and Linklater (Boyhood, Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight) — with help from screenwriters Holly Gent and Vince Palmo, adapting the novel by Maria Semple — take that ostensibly worn-out premise and turn it into one the highlights of an admittedly dismal summer season, with nothing more than simple, expressive character acting in the right setting.
Bernadette Fox (Blanchett) lives outside Seattle with her daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) and husband Elgie (Billy Crudup), in a large but crumbling, leaking, mildewed house that is being overwhelmed by invasive blackberries. The home’s physical condition mirrors the emotional distress of its owner. Award-winning architect-turned-professional-eccentric Bernadette is hiding from the world after her career went down in flames — her masterpiece design was abruptly demolished by its philistine new owner. Impromptu, unhinged soliloquies are part of her resume now, as is a petty feud with her annoying yuppie neighbor (Kristen Wiig). Daughter Bee, the spiritual center of the household, is looking forward to a family vacation to Antarctica, but on the eve of the trip her mother mysteriously goes missing.
In the role of derailed visionary Bernadette, Blanchett plays a variation on the character of Jasmine from Blue Jasmine — an exasperated, borderline delusional woman whose defiantly superior attitude masks a deep disconnect with a world that’s not performing to expectations. Other people simply refuse to pay her the respect she feels she deserves and so she rebels, sometimes unobtrusively, sometimes quite loudly.
The sharp, prosecutorial tone we recognize from the Blanchett playbook here shades into the mannerisms of a wounded idealist who would rather cut a hole in a Chinese carpet to let a tendril find its way into her living room, than to settle for the aspirations of a middle-class property owner. Blanchett, of course, has made a specialty in rebelliousness. Skepticism drips from Bernadette like raindrops through a leaky roof. So does the tender empathy of a woman “incredibly moved by things nobody else notices.” Bernadette is obviously wound too tight. Her worried family is considering an intervention, but they have to catch up to her first.
The “eccentric genius” subgenre is a reliably fertile field for showboating actors, and when combined with Linklater’s knack for skewed family studies we’re in for a feast of extravagant behavior. Everyone seems to work harder when Blanchett is on board. TV and Movie whirlwind Wiig, the epitome of a frazzled matron (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), has only one job to do in Bernadette, as the nagging NIMBY next door: fly into a tizzy every time she runs into her nemesis. Particularly when it comes to unstable hillsides. Crudup, as Bernadette’s problematic hubby Elgie, a stereotypical techie, takes a fairly standard part and gives it a smoothly sinister spin, jogging in tandem with his suspiciously solicitous assistant Soo-Lin, played by Zoe Chao.
As we might have foreseen, Bernadette’s empathy-laden daughter Bee — played by Nelson as her own special brand of problem-solver — is the most adult character in the film. Too brainy for Choate, Bee has fastened her sights on Antarctica as the land of opportunity, for her mother if for no one else. And since this is after all 2019, the story allows ample time and space for Bernadette’s tragic flaw — her ruinous addiction to Manjula (standing in for Siri?), the online concierge who botches her plans as thoroughly as a rogue mudslide or a killer blackberry vine. Where’d You Go Bernadette answers its own question: Right to the heart of 21st-century human condition, with the queen of character actors at the wheel.